An In-Depth Look at the Federal Merit System Principles (MSPs)

May 10, 2024
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

The Merit System Principles (MSPs) are a set of guidelines that govern employment in the federal sector. All federal agencies are bound by the MSPs, and when a federal agency violates an MSP, the employee or employees affected by the agency’s violation can—and should—hire a federal employment lawyer to help them seek appropriate legal remedies.

The Nine Federal Merit System Principles (MSPs)

There are nine Merit System Principles. Under each of the nine MSPs, there are both steps federal agencies need to take and actions they need to avoid. Here is a look at what federal employees (and former federal employees who may have a wrongful termination claim) need to know:

MSP 1: Recruitment, Selection and Advancement

Merit System Principle #1 states: “Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a workforce from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.” Under MSP 1, federal agencies must provide equal opportunities to all qualified candidates at all stages of the federal employment lifecycle, and they must avoid prohibited practices such as:

  • Only posting job opportunities on
  • Using narrowly focused recruitment practices
  • Implementing unreasonable application procedures

MSP 2: Equity

Merit System Principle #2 states: “All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.” Under MSP 2, federal agencies must avoid discriminatory practices in all aspects of their operations (not just recruitment, selection and advancement), and they must avoid prohibited practices such as:

  • Making hiring decisions based on personal connections
  • Selecting supervisors based on technical competency rather than supervisory ability
  • Basing personnel decisions on any non-merit-based factors

MSP 3: Compensation

Merit System Principle #3 states: “Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.” Under MSP 3 prohibits unequal compensation for equal work (taking into account geographic location and other relevant factors), in addition to prohibiting practices such as:

  • Basing pay decisions on non-merit-based factors
  • Implementing automatic pay increases
  • Failing to appropriately recognize excellent performance

MSP 4: Conduct

Merit System Principle #4 states: “All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.” While MSP 4 speaks to all federal-sector employees, in practice, it focuses specifically on ensuring integrity within the human resources function. Among other things, MSP 4 prohibits practices such as:

  • Making hiring decisions with insufficient information
  • Punishing federal employees who report wrongdoing
  • Ignoring potential integrity issues

MSP 5: Utilization

Merit System Principle #5 states: “The Federal workforce should be used efficiently and effectively.” Under MSP 5, federal agencies are expected to staff their operations effectively while employing supervisors who are “willing and able” to implement the MSPs, and while acknowledging and addressing the importance of employee engagement. Prohibited practices under MSP 5 include:

  • Considering only organizational needs (and not employees’ needs) when making staffing-related decisions
  • Considering only employees’ needs (and not operational needs) when making staffing-related decisions
  • Selecting supervisors based on personnel connections or capabilities that are not pertinent to their role

MSP 6: Retention

Merit System Principle #6 states: “Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.” While MSP 6 “[d]irects agencies to identify and address poor performance,” it also makes clear that federal agencies must observe all due process requirements when pursuing proposed adverse employment action. Under MSP 6, federal agencies must avoid prohibited practices such as:

  • Failing to conduct performance reviews and provide constructive feedback
  • Ignoring poor performance or selectively taking action in response to poor performance
  • Taking any adverse employment action that “can[not] be defended”

MSP 7: Employee Training and Development

Merit System Principle #7 states: “Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.” Among other requirements, federal agencies must provide their employees with sufficient resources and opportunities to improve their performance, and they must “[c]onsider the relative value of selecting for versus training for competencies.” Practices that are prohibited under MSP 7 include:

  • Choosing not to provide training in order to reduce costs
  • Funding training that “lacks a clear link to individual and organizational development”
  • Failing to provide adequate training to supervisors, managers or other employees  

MSP 8: Neutrality

Merit System Principe #8 states: “Employees should be—(A) protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and (B) prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.” Under MSP 8, federal agencies must adopt a “zero tolerance” policy against partisan political coercion and discrimination, and they must ensure that their supervisors and other upper-level staff avoid prohibited practices including:

  • Making employment-related decisions based on political affiliations
  • Making employment-related decisions based on political ambitions
  • Using their position to try to influence elections

MSP 9: Public Interest

Merit System Principle #9 states: “Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences—(A) a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or (B) mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.” MSP 9 focuses specifically on retaliation, and it prohibits practices such as:

  • Taking actions that discourage employees from coming forward
  • Penalizing employees for exercising their rights (including their right to come forward)
  • Attempting to conceal retaliatory adverse employment actions

What If Your Federal Agency Violated an MSP?

If you believe that your federal agency (or former federal agency) violated a Merit System Principle to your detriment, what should you do? In this situation, the most important thing you can do is speak with an experienced federal employment lawyer as soon as possible. While you may be entitled to various remedies, you may also need to take action quickly in order to protect your legal rights. A lawyer who has experience representing federal employees in disciplinary and other employment-related matters will be able to help you make informed decisions and take appropriate legal action on your behalf.

Schedule a Confidential Consultation with a Federal Employment Lawyer Today

Do you need to know more about taking action in response to a federal agency’s violation of a Merit System Principle? If so, we encourage you to get in touch. To speak with a lawyer at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford in confidence as soon as possible, call 410-514-6099 or request a consultation online today.